I never thought my first live sighting of and listening to the great Chinese/American cellist and social activist, Yo-Yo-Ma would be in the great open void beneath Barangaroo Park. But that’s what happened this morning as he passed swiftly through Sydney on his way around the world performing Bach’s six iconic cello suites in 36 countries. No, I didn’t get the Bach this morning, sadly – that was the previous night in the Opera House. But I did get the other part of Ma’s project – a day of action, a series of conversations and collaborations that explore how culture can help us imagine and build a better future.
In this case he was conversing and collaborating with Indigenous poets and the Wailawan violinist, Eric Avery, brought together by curator Daniel Browning and Sydney’s Urban Theatre Projects for a sound work called ‘Momentum‘, which plays in the Blak Box tent in Barangaroo Park over the next fortnight. That has a starting point in David Bowie’s extraordinary music video to accompany his 1983 song, ‘Let’s Dance’, which must have been the earliest exposure of Aboriginal people to the world via pop music. In the video, a blonded Bowie sings leaning against an outback pub wall as tubby locals in shorts get up and dance, while a group of young Aborigines head out bush to observe a mysterious explosion over the Warrumbungles (qv Maralinga?), are seen slaving in industry and domestic service, and end up fine dining in Bondi!
Images totally unrelated (as far as I can see) to the love song in the text, with its hints of Hans Christian Anderson’s cautionary tale of ‘The Red Shoes‘.
But that early, politicised exposure of Aborigines meant much more to First Nations people at the time. Prof Larissa Behrendt hails it as really prophetic; he predicted what the unfinished business of the nation was. While Sydney Festival Director, Wesley Enoch reckons from that moment on, you knew things were possible. Now, they, along with Ursula Yovich singing a version of Let’s Dance in language, artist Vernon Ah Kee and poets Evelyn Araluen, Kirli Saunders and Joel Davison all contribute to ‘Momentum’ – a deep listening experience in which the audience can hear music, spoken word and song from First Nations artists.
This morning, the three young poets joined Yo-Yo Ma and Eric Avery to kick proceedings off with some of their bi-lingual works and offered an intriguing opportunity to observe how the Indigenous case in Australia is changing and progressing in the way it’s being argued. Whereas pioneers like Gary Foley and Marcia Langton took a whitefella political line in making the case for physical land and capitalist reparations to repair 200 years of colonial exploitation, this new generation has a much more cultural approach. With the help of their own historic languages “ Joel Davison, in particular, impressed with a rare ease in the long-forgotten Gadigal language “ they cry out for connection to the land and landscape, they hear through stories and songs the pain of their old people, and they accept a responsibility to care for themselves, to care for the earth and then to share the understanding gained with the wider community.
As Evelyn Araluen, Bundjalung academic put it, There’s been such a failure of links to the land, which we have always known intimately, surviving through apocalypses that you in the West cannot comprehend. We understand the land through stories and traditional knowledge, while you associate it only with violent extractive processes.
When the ever-inquisitive Ma wasn’t testing these young people appreciatively, he and Eric Avery found common ground in a demotic music that may have had the complexity of Bach, but suited this conversation much better. Ma began with an Appalachian Waltz and Avery soloed with music that, increasingly, as he learns more of his Ngyampaa language and stories, weaves them into the music. I have learned my great granddad’s songs and I sing them with the violin, explained Avery. Those melodies are always apparent in my music where I also try to create a sense of space. I think it’s my interpretation of the Australian landscape. It’s sparse music maybe, but to me it’s like how you are in the desert and at night and the sky is like a dome and the land is very flat.
Together, Avery and Ma completed the morning with a duetted Ngyampaa lullaby, which revealed just how deep a listener Yo-Yo Ma can be as he travels about, really engaging with 36 different world cultures.